"Nice try" is what I thought when I heard that the French Senate recently voted to ban beauty pageants for girls under 16.
And, "Bonne chance!"
The new bill, which France's National Assembly has yet to pass, turns the crowning of princesses into a crime worthy of dungeons. It calls for a two-year jail term and a fine of €30,000 ($40,000) for organizers of children's beauty pageants. But this was never about fears that there could be a Honey Boo Boo of France.
Anyone who has watched an episode of TLC's popular Toddlers & Tiaras knows that it's an act of prurient voyeurism into a psychological subculture that is decidedly American.
The French don't have the same level of enthusiasm for pint-sized princesses.
Their pageants, called Mini-Miss events, are demure compared with the intense competitions in the United States, complete with shouting mothers and grandmothers – a phenomenon that Martina Cartwright, a nutritional scientist who has studied U.S. child pageants, describes as "a form of achievement-by-proxy distortion."
Originally much broader in scope, outlawing the "kidult" trend of adult clothing for children (including padded bras and high-heeled shoes) and banning models under the age of 16 in ad campaigns, the French bill was an attempt to address a growing trend in the fashion industry that projects adult sensibilities – and desires – onto young girls. It should be lauded.
But it should also be lamented. When a government steps in to regulate what should be common sense, it only highlights how the culture has lost its sense of social responsibility.
The bill's champion, French Senator Chantal Jouanno, wrote a paper, "Against Hyper-Sexualization: A New Fight for Equality," following the appearance a couple of years ago of a 10-year-old model in French Vogue.
In that magazine feature, Thylane Blondeau, who has been called an "epic beauty," was photographed reclining on a bed, dressed in an evening gown and wearing stilettos, jewellery, nail polish and makeup. She gazed into the camera with supreme adult confidence, provoking a million outraged cries.
Sure, there was a 15-year-old Brooke Shields back in the early eighties cooing about nothing coming between her and her Calvin Klein jeans. We can't deny there is an appetite for Lolitas. But what happens when pandering to it becomes an acceptable – or at least widely condoned – practice? When you see images of sexualized girls often enough, you become inured to it. It becomes normal.
And there have been many of them in recent years. In 2011, Dakota Fanning – who looked younger than her age at 17 – was photographed in an ad for Oh, Lola!, a perfume by Marc Jacobs, with the top of the perfume bottle, an oversized blossom, positioned between her legs. It kicked up controversy, but only Britain banned its publication. That same year, her 13-year-old sister, Elle, starred in Jacobs's 2011 fall ad campaign. Hailee Steinfeld was featured in Miu Miu advertising when she was 14.
In many ways, the trend of girls as models in adult fashion magazines and the popularity of child beauty pageants can be seen as part of a perfect storm in the culture – a child-centric focus in parenting, an obsession with youthful appearance and a 24/7 media culture that requires shock to capture attention.
"We are entranced by youth," Cartwright says over the phone when asked about the trend of girl models for adult clothing. "We value youth above everything.
These girls epitomize what we are supposed to all want."
Karen Kataline, a social worker and author of Fatlash! Food Police and The Fear of Thin who was a child-pageant star (and Little Miss Denver at the age of 9), believes that the images of models such as Blondeau who are unmistakably children are intriguing to the viewer because on some level we know they're wrong.
"There is so much noise in the culture that in order for anyone to pay attention, you have to become more outrageous," she explains in a telephone interview.
But to me, those images pull us in because we're entranced by the possibility of the innocent. We imagine the life that lies ahead for a girl as mesmerizing as Blondeau. We envy the adulthood we like to imagine for her. And as a child, we assume she is a tabula rasa, the perfect, empty, inexperienced, unknowing vessel for our own projections, our own entertainment and pleasure. She is objectified, a means to our own ends, which makes her similar to those poor little princesses who are charged with winning pageant titles in order to fulfill the thwarted ambitions of their mothers.
"This is a widespread cultural problem that society has to grapple with through awareness, discussion and education," Kataline says. "It's not something that you can easily stick a little band aid on with a bill from a government."